BEIRUT: March 14 MPs accused their political opponents Wednesday of using Lebanon’s disputed territorial waters with Israel as a pretext for Hezbollah to keep its arms, reiterating their opposition to a proposed caretaker Cabinet session to approve decrees needed to award tenders for offshore oil and gas exploration. Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara, from the Future parliamentary bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said he wanted an “honorable” government to handle the country’s oil wealth.
“We do not want the oil that the terrorist group claims to protect,” Kabbara said in a statement, referring to Hezbollah. “We do not want the oil that the bloc of corruption claims to preserve,” Kabbara said, referring to MP Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc.
Kabbara said that while Hezbollah claimed to defend Lebanon’s right to exploit its maritime oil in the disputed area with Israel, it actually planned to spark a new Lebanese-Israeli war as an excuse to retain its arms.
“We want our oil, but we prefer that it remains preserved at the bottom of the sea until a government of honorable [politicians] is formed to handle it,” Kabbara said.
Lebanon and Israel are at loggerheads over the 850 kilometers of territorial water that each claims as part of its exclusive economic zone. Political interests have advised Lebanon seek the U.N.’s help in demarcating this region.
Hezbollah has said that its arms are essential for liberating Lebanon’s territories which remain occupied by Israel, mainly the Shebaa Farms, and for protecting Lebanon’s right to exploit its oil wealth.
Lebanese Forces MP Fadi Karam also voiced fear that Hezbollah would use the dispute with Israel over territorial waters as a pretext to retain its arms, just as it did with the Shebaa Farms, he said.
“All Lebanese care about every inch of Lebanon, and no one went back on the demand to recover the Shebaa Farms,” Karam told a local radio station.
“But the ally of the March 8 coalition, which is Syria, should provide [the U.N. with] the documents proving that Lebanon owns these farms. This case has been pending for years and has become a pretext [for Hezbollah to keep its arms],” Karam said. “Hence our call for resorting to specialized international courts [to resolve] the case [of disputed territorial waters].”
Karam’s remarks came in response to comments by Speaker Nabih Berri published in a local newspaper Wednesday. Berri criticized abandoning the Shebaa Farms and accused some Lebanese groups of questioning the country’s right to the land.
Berri has called on the caretaker Cabinet to hold a special session to endorse two decrees that designate Lebanon’s 10 offshore blocks for oil exploration and determine the model for revenue sharing.
Hezbollah, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt supported Berri’s call. Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati opposes convening a session, citing a lack of consensus among ministers over the issue.
The Future Movement says that a caretaker government could not constitutionally decide an “important strategic matter” such as oil and gas exploration. It said it did not trust Mikati’s caretaker government. The movement also accuses the FPM of corruption. Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil is Aoun’s son-in-law.
MP Walid Khoury, from Aoun’s bloc, maintained that holding a Cabinet session was constitutional.
“Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has promised to convene a Cabinet session [to endorse the two decrees] even if the Cabinet was under a caretaker status,” Khoury told a local radio station.
Berri and the FPM are at odds over the number of blocks that should be approved for drilling. The speaker has called for auctioning off all of Lebanon’s 10 blocks to the bidding companies in one round.
But the Petroleum Administration has named only five blocks, a move supported by Bassil, who argued that approving all the blocks for drilling in one batch was not a transparent act.
Karam said that the number of blocks approved for drilling did not matter.
“We are interested in knowing how they will be auctioned off and who approves them for drilling. Why don’t we follow the example of other countries in this field?” Karam asked.
In his remarks, Berri voiced surprise that Mikati opposed calling for the session, hinting that his stance reflected the will of the Future Movement.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a source close to Berri said that what he called a technical dispute between Aoun and the FPM should not prevent the caretaker Cabinet from convening.
“Let the Cabinet session be held and everyone will then state his opinion,” the source said, requesting to remain anonymous.
The source added that the blocks offered by the Petroleum Administration were the best five. “Why aren’t the entire blocks offered?”
Sources from the Grand Serail refused to comment on Berri’s remarks.
“The time will come when Mikati will reveal why he is not convinced of calling for a special Cabinet session,” a source said, requesting anonymity.
Political sources from the March 8 coalition said that Mikati had no intention to call a session in the first place and that the prime minister had exploited the dispute between the FPM and Berri over the number of blocks to be approved for drilling in order to avoid doing so.
The sources said that Mikati made his stance in coordination with President Michel Sleiman, who reportedly was not interested in allowing the FPM to make such an achievement.
Mikati is expected to fly to London Saturday for the Eid al-Adha holiday.